I died a little inside, and now I reek of death (fiction)
When I was born, my mother tried to kill me.
After the delivery, the nurses swaddled me up and offered me to her. She refused to touch me. When my father tried to comfort her, she pushed him away.
The nurses took me away for a bit, but brought me back to her a little later. This time she was fine. She held me and cooed and said she didn't know what had come over her the first time around.
She cooed and held me as my father and the doctor left the room to talk. Once the door had closed, she placed me down on the bed beside her and tried to smother me with a pillow.
"Abomination!" she screamed when the doctor pulled her off.
"Abomination!" she screeched as my father tried to calm her down.
"Abomination," she said as she collapsed into sobs.
I did not go home with them that day.
* * * * *
Old Man Leary always watched us kids from his front porch, polishing his gun and rocking on his rocking chair. He used to scare my foster siblings and I, so naturally we made it a game of running to his house and touching his mailbox, or throwing rocks onto his grass. By the time I hit twelve, he'd come off more funny than scary and more sad than funny. But we still ran when he chased us off his lawn.
We were playing in the street because it was summer and we were stupid and James’ parents (my foster parents. James was their real son) had given us a soccer ball. It was me, James, and Tyler who was the oldest of us all at the venerable age of fourteen.
Leary had been doing his grouchy old man routine, but when it became clear that we weren’t interested in pestering him that day he went inside. As is the way of things, the one day we decided not to torment the guy was the one day we accidentally kicked out ball into his yard.
It soared over the fence and landed somewhere on the other side, into the abyss.
Tyler immediately made like he was going to retrieve it. James grabbed onto his arm.
“What are you doing?” he said.
“Getting it back,” said Tyler.
“He’ll kill you,” James said. In his defense, he was only nine and so didn’t have the wisdom of the elders on his side like Tyler and me.
“He won’t kill me,” said Tyler, going up to the yard. There was only the barest hint of hesitation before he stepped onto the grass. I followed him because I knew he was going to do something stupid and I needed to be there to clean up the mess. James, after a bit of panic-dancing at the edge of the grass, followed us into the side yard.
There was a wooden gate separating the front yard from the back, but there wasn’t any lock on it, just a latch with a hole where a lock could theoretically go to stop intruders such as ourselves. All we had to do was pull it and we were in. The gate closed behind us.
The back yard was miles better than the front yard, with grass that actually got watered and flowers that, now I think on it, probably took a lot of effort to grow all tidy and in patterns the way they did. The soccer ball was nestled in a red-yellow checkerboard tulip flowerbed near the back fence.
“Damn, James,” Tyler said. “You got some distance.”
James was still worried, but I could tell he was pleased by the compliment. He was a scrawny kid and didn’t often get a really good kick in these kinds of games.
Tyler got the ball, tromping through the flowers without a second thought, and threw it over to me. I kicked it over the gate. We were just getting ready to leave when Leary came out, screaming at us trespassers and waving that stupid shotgun around.
I didn’t know any of us could move so fast. We ran to the side yard and flocked around the gate, trying to get it open. There was either something wrong with the latch or (more likely) something wrong with my hands, because I couldn’t get the damn thing to open. Tyler more or less said ‘fuck you’ to gravity, kicked off the wall of the house, and swung himself over the gate. I would have taken a moment to appreciate the fact that my foster brother was apparently channeling Jackie Chan, but James was too small to get over on his own, so I had to try and give him a boost.
Then Leary came around, apparently enjoying the sight of a bunch of panicked kids, only to get pissed off again when he realized that one of us had actually gotten away. He grabbed the back of my shirt and pulled me back, meaning James was left hanging to the top of the gate for all of ten seconds before his fingers gave and he fell back into the yard with us.
Leary started yelling at me. Which was fine with me because I was a little snot and thought not caring in the face of sputtering adult rage was a sign of defiant coolness.
But then he started yelling at James and that just wasn't right 'cause James had never done a damned thing wrong in his life. Okay, yeah, maybe he'd kicked the ball over, but that wasn't on purpose, and he was sorry, wasn't he? And besides, Leary didn’t know that. He was just yelling at James because he was small and actually got upset when adults were mad at him.
Then Leary lifted up the gun like he was going hit him with it and I just knew the old man had gone off the deep end.
James just stood there and started to cry, which just pissed me off to no end because he was the nicest little kid I'd ever met and hadn't done a damn thing wrong except follow me and Tyler, which kind of meant that him crying was my fault, too. And Leary looked like he was about to start frothing at the mouth, and I was getting madder and madder until I thought I might start frothing too.
Then he pointed the gun at James for real.
So I opened my mouth and, before I realized what I was doing, talked for the first time in years.
The word is always the same. I never know what it actually is, since I can never hear myself when I say it. And I never finish. Because if I finish, I just know something horrible will happen.
So I said the first part of the word and there was a twinge in my chest and a twinge in my left hand and a really foul taste in my mouth, and Mr. Leary's eyes went wide. He clutched at his chest and I had just enough time to see the left side of his face go slack before he fell to the floor and started spasming.
James was really crying by then. The kind of crying where there's not a damn thing you can do about it because you've already poured everything you've got into it and can't stop, even if you want to. So I grabbed him and dragged him out of the yard. I ran with him all the way home and signed to Jen what had happened, leaving out the part with me talking.
The cops were called. Ambulances were called. There was nothing anyone could do: the old man was thoroughly dead.
It was an accident, everyone told us. It was nobody's fault. The old man just croaked. The real kicker? The damned gun hadn't even been loaded. The old bastard had just been trying to scare us.
That night, when the three of us were in our room, and after Tyler had fallen asleep, James said to me, "You talked today."
"It wasn't a lot, and what it was was all messed up, but I heard it. I've never heard you talk before. I thought you couldn't. Everyone said you couldn't."
I continued a lifelong habit of not saying a word.
"Is that why?" he whispered. I almost didn't hear him. "Is that why you don't talk?"
I rolled and leaned over the top bunk and signed down to him,
He never mentioned it again.
* * * * *
Dogs never liked me when I was growing up.
My second foster family had dogs. Two German shepherds big enough to tear a man in half but sweet enough that social services didn't mind them being around kids. At least, until they met me.
When I was four I was introduced to Menelaus and Hecuba and quickly after that I was reintroduced to the St. Claire Hospital's emergency room. After that it was a choice between getting rid of me or the dogs and frankly Fido-squared had seniority.
In the third foster home- the one that stuck, the one with James and Tyler, back before Tyler was there and it was just two year old James and five year old me, Jen and Chris tried to get a dog.
It was a huge fucking monster and scared me shitless. A Newfoundland, they said. The most stupidly friendly dog to come around since whatever breed Clifford was.
Even at tender age of still-sucks-on-the-carpet, James had enough presence of mind to adore the beast. He toddled his way over and let it try and lick his face off. Jen and Chris, after an hour of trying (and failing) to cajole me into greeting the monster, gave up and let me stay hidden in the bedroom, where I managed to avoid the dog for a good week and a half, coming out only when I knew it was outside in the back yard or out for a walk.
Of course it couldn't last forever, and by some horrible stroke of luck, James, Bear and I were all left alone in the living room together.
At first, I thought maybe Bear would ignore me, so intent was he on playing with James. Then I made the mistake of trying to sidle past against the wall in order to get to the kitchen.
Then the dog looked up and we both froze, staring at one another. Then it began to growl. A low rumble James didn't seem to mind but had me almost pissing my pants.
Bear came over to me, stiff legged, head low, teeth bared, and snarling.
I still had scars from the last dogs I'd run into. I didn't wait, I ran into the kitchen, and the dog followed.
He ran me around the house a couple times before trapping me on top of the dining room table. He never barked once, but kept on snarling which was worse because if he'd been barking, then at least Jen would hear and come see what was wrong. As it was, I couldn't yell for her, and James was no help at all, as he was still giggling his head off in the living room, watching the show through the doorway.
While the dog was trying to figure out how to get onto the table, I felt a burning feeling in my throat and a stinging in my mouth and a twinge in my chest. At the time, I'd never felt that way before.
Contrary to what James thought later, he had heard me talk before. He was just too little to remember it.
I said part of word, cutting myself off before the whole thing could break its way out, and the dog was dead. Just keeled over, no reason at all. James didn't know, he probably thought it was asleep or something. He stayed in the living room, smiling his face off and waiting for the dog to start chasing me again.
I ran upstairs to Jen and pulled her by the wrist, leading her to the dining room. She found the dog. She called Chris.
I was five. The dog outweighed me by a hundred pounds. James was in the other room. Obviously neither of us had anything to do with the dog's death. It was just a freak accident. Not even accident, as that would imply somebody did something. It was just a random act of God. And, as the future would show, Jen and Chris were really accepting of both random acts of God and freak accidents.
I knew better. After Chris had come home, while he and one of his buddies were loading Bear into the back of pick up to be taken to I-don't-even-know-where to be buried or burned or dumped in a river, while Jen was holding my hand and James was waving goodbye to the doggie, it occurred to me that there was a reason I didn't talk.
* * * * *
I first saw the man in black the day after Mr. Leary died.
He was standing across the street from the house, watching us pile into Jen’s car so she could take us to school. That was all he did. Just stand there in his M.I.B suit and watch us. I saw him, but nobody else did, even when I pointed him out.
From then on, I saw him everywhere.
He was at the school, standing stock-still in the middle of the field outside my classroom window. He was across the street from the bus stop where I waited to go home. He was in the grocery store when Jen took us shopping, or at the table across from us if we went out to eat. No matter where we went, where I went, he was there, hanging back and watching. And nobody could see him but me.
One night about a week after he'd first shown up, I woke up in the middle of the night and looked out the bedroom window. The room James, Tyler and I shared was on the second story, facing the front and overlooking the street. He was outside, of course. Standing perfectly still in front of the neighbor’s house. Watching.
Or, I thought, backing away from the window. Maybe he's waiting.
I crept out the room and down the stairs. I probably needn't have bothered: I was the only light sleeper in the house. Everyone else slept like the dead.
I went out the front door and walked to the very edge of our lawn, directly across from him. He didn't move. I waved. He waved back, and then gestured for me to come over. I shook my head and gestured for him to come over here.
He just stood there. For several minutes, he stood there. I broke after the five minute mark and darted across the street.
I knew the man had been skinny, but it wasn't until I was up close that I could see how skeletal he really was. Like ridiculously pale skin stretched over bones. He was also tall, towering at (based on my twelve year old's estimation) a good ten feet. He smiled when he saw me coming, sending his face contorting into a web of lines and shadowed grooves.
What? I signed. The usual sign for what looks a lot like someone just gesturing their arms in a general 'the fuck?' way, so most people tend to know what I mean.
"I can't believe it," he said. His voice was surprisingly strong for such a twig-like man. It was deep. Oceans and caves and catacombs deep. But amused, as well.
"You actually came to me. How long have I been trying to hunt you down, scouring this rock through the generations? I’ve been digging through past bloodlines in case you wanted to stay in the family. I’ve checked the richest of the rich and the highest of the high, in case you wanted a taste of royalty. I’ve found the famous and the powerful anonymous and the prestigious and well loved, digging through their sordid secrets trying to find where you might've hidden yourself, and then I find you here. In your pajamas."
He gingerly touched my shoulder, pinching the fabric of my shirt like he wanted to check if it really was real. I hastily backed up and glared at him. The smile widened. There was something about his face- about him that put me on edge, but I couldn’t put my finger on what.
"They’re all waiting for you,” he said. “We couldn’t start the party without you.”
I tilted my head. What’s he talking about? I thought.
“I’m talking about home. Where you belong. Where you’re needed. They've all been in an uproar there and He is being no help at all. He refuses to get a new voice and start without you. Sentimental value, I assume. When you have one for several billion millennia, I suppose you get attached." He studied my face. “You really don’t remember, do you?”
He stepped closer. I backed off, keeping the distance between us. “Now why is that, I wonder? And why aren’t you talking?”
Because I kill stuff when I do.
“So? You used to be able to turn it on and off.” He started the chuckle. “Looks like you’ve got yourself a damaged husk this time around. What happened, did your host mother drink too much when she was carrying you? Were you dropped on your head?”
“Take it easy, champ. I’m sure your momma was a saint.”
Who are you?
"Nevermind, you wouldn't get it."
Without warning, he grabbed my shirtfront with one hand and pulled me close, grabbing my hair with the other hand. "Stop squirming," he said. "Let me see your eyes."
I wriggled and kicked and bit. It didn't work: the old man had a grip like a vise. He pulled back my head and looked at me.
Terror hit me then. Like a punch to the gut. For a split second, every inch of me was burning, screaming to run. Runrunrunrunrunrunrun
The man had no eyes. Mr. Black didn’t have eyes. Instead, he had two hollowed out pits where they should’ve gone. And inside those pits was a twisted, writhing mass of- of-
I think I blacked out then, because the next thing I know, Mr. Black is carrying me down the street to a pale horse- a fucking horse- waiting by the sidewalk. I started awake and he dropped me. I hit the ground running.
"Hey, hold it, kiddo. Where do you think you're off to?"
I turned and ran, only to bump into him as he suddenly appeared in front of me. "No no," he said, grabbing my shoulder. "It took me forever to find you. Don't think I'm just going to lose you again just because you're feeling yellow-"
So I did what I always did when I was scared stupid. I shouted part of the word.
He still stood there, smiling. “Now that’s what I’m talking about,” he said. “But you didn’t finish. Wait ‘til we get home, then you can say the whole thing and we’ll be good- What?” he said, suddenly noticing the look on my face. “What is it?” He felt his face and noticed the glowing golden blood leaking out from his eyes.
“Oh you little fucker,” he said. He didn’t sound angry. He sounded like someone who’s caught the family pet doing something they shouldn’t be, but at the same time doing it cutely enough that he couldn’t be mad. “You’re not supposed to use it on me.”
He collapsed into a pile of ash. The horse was gone, as though it had never been there.
I ran home and spent the rest of the night under the covers.
* * * * *
Whatever I'd done, I hadn’t killed Mr. Black. Or if I did, I didn’t do a very good job of it, 'cause he was back the next week.
Have you ever felt someone brush against you, only for you to turn and find nobody there? Have you ever felt that cold, creeping feeling of someone watching you, even when all logic dictates that you're much to uninteresting to look at?
Now imagine that feeling all the time.
He’d smartened up, though. Now he never got too close, or let me get close to him. He tried sneaking up on me a few times, back in the beginning, but I always ashed him. Around the sixth or seventh time, he stopped trying and instead decided to play the waiting game. By the time I was eighteen, I pretty much stopped caring. He hadn’t tried anything in years, and he never bothered anyone but me. He was very polite, as stalkers go.
* * * * *
The guy who broke into our house when I was sixteen and started waving a gun around, then died of an aneurism a second later. He probably deserved it, but even then I didn't mean to do anything to him. He just surprised me and it slipped out.
I was lucky, I guess. Tyler was at night school and Jen had gone to pick him up. James was at a friends house. Chris was there, but I don't think he heard me in the excitement.
Mr. Black was watching through the glass slider doors in kitchen.
Or later, after I’d moved out, the woman who rear-ended me on the highway. She ran into me, I ran into someone else. Somewhere in the chaos, I panicked and shouted. As usual, I didn't say the whole thing, but more got out that usual.
I didn't mean to kill her. I didn't even see her- just felt the front of her car hit mine. I didn't mean to kill the man driving in front of me, the one I ran into. Or the old couple driving along nearby, who weren't even part of the crash until after they'd gotten too close to me and my word and died behind the wheel, veering their pick-up into our pile. Or the family of five who crashed into them. Or the driver of a semi that plowed over us all.
When the EMTs pulled me out, they had to stop me from slitting my wrists with a twisted piece of scrap metal. They couldn't understand why the only survivor of a seven-plus pileup would keep trying to kill himself.
Mr. Black was there when they drugged me up and dragged me to St. Claire's. As usual, nobody noticed.
* * * * *
Seven days after the docs let me out with a clean bill of health, Chris got into an accident of his own.
His neck broke. He didn’t die.
The hospital hallway was cold, but that might’ve been me.
The second I was in, Jen buried her face into my shoulder and started to sob. I returned the hug and for a split second, was shocked at how much taller than her I was these days.
I looked over at Tyler and mouthed, how is he?
“They don’t know if he’ll wake up.” His voice was dead.
“They said it was a miracle he was alive at all,” said James. “They-they said they-“ he choked. Tyler signed the rest to me, so as not to have to say it aloud around Jen and James. The doctors didn’t think Chris would wake up at all.
I looked at Chris and looked away. I disengaged from Jen.
"Where are you-?"
Tyler put a hand on her shoulder. "I think he needs to be alone."
So she turned around and buried herself in him. I gave him a grateful smile and went out into the hallway. Mr. Black was waiting for me.
You did this, I thought.
"I might've arranged for it to happen, yes.” He was leaning against the wall, playing on his phone. “I might’ve stopped him from taking the last leap off this planet, too.”
"You're getting reckless, kiddo. You almost killed yourself the other day.”
I stared at him, flabbergasted. What?
"He's an attention getter. And I can do the same thing to any of them in there."
It was suddenly very hard to breath. You’d kill them?
“Worse. I’ll keep them alive. I went easy on your dad: he’s asleep for this. I could arrange it so they’d be awake.”
He gave me a moment to let that sink in.
What do you want?
“Come back with me. We’ve got work to do.”
What about Chris?
“What about him?”
You can’t leave him like that!
“Fine, then. You want him in the coma, or do you want me to take him now? It’s your call, hotshot.”
It was definitely hard to breathe, now. The room felt hot and cold and my hands were shaking and I wanted nothing more than to go crawl into some dark place and hide. You can’t make me pick. You can’t make me choose that. Not that. Not Chris. I backed against the wall and started scratching my arms.
“Don’t be so dramatic about it. It’s just a human.” I didn’t hear him very well. It sounded like he was very far away. He He stood up and wrapped an arm around my shoulder. My first instinct was to shrug him off, but I couldn’t. Right then, my legs were jelly and the world was falling sideways. I don’t think I would’ve been able to stand if not for him.
He walked us down the hallway. As we turned the corner, alarms started going off. Things started beeping. I tried to turn and see what it was, but he kept going forward.
The fucking horse was back. Smack dab in the middle of the hospital hallway. I didn’t ask. There was no saddle. We got on and the horse took off at a running start down the hall. An orderly came out of one of the rooms. We passed right through her.
There was a blur at one point when the hospital melted into a dark tunnel. The horse never slowed down and ran us through to the light at the end.
The tunnel spat us out on a battlefield. Big. Big, big, big flat dry and brown battlefield. We stood between two armies, both identical save for their banners, which were two different shades of gray. In the long strip of cleared area between them, three other horses and five people were chatting.
There were three other riders. The guy on the white horse had a bow and a crown that was a size too big for him. He kept having to lift it back over his eyes and adjust it. The one in red on the sorrel was shaving himself with the edge of a sword and a small handmirror placed strategically on his horse’s neck. The guy on the black horse was desperately fiddling some metal thing with the unmistakable air of someone who has just broken company property and will get docked if it doesn’t get fixed right now.
Two men were standing, one with white armor and one in a dark robe. The man in the white had a sack, and was rooting around in it. The man in the dark robes noticed us first.
"We've been waiting,” he said as we rode up. “What took so long?”
Mr. Black shoved me off the horse. I fell and landed face first on the dirt.
“This guy is what happened. He got himself reincarnated, again. Took me forever to find him this time around, and when I did, any time I got near him, he tried to kill me.”
The others all found this hilarious.
The man in the robes leaned over and squinted at me. "You sure that's him? Doesn't look anything like him."
"It's him,” said Mr. Black. “Who’s going to tell the Big Man he’s got his spokesperson back?”
The one in white armor whipped out a cellphone.
“Yo, Mike? Yeah. Yeah, we got him. Wanna tell dad- oh. Right. Cool.” He flipped the phone shut and tucked it back into whatever unseen pocket he’d drawn it out from. “Mike says he already knows. Says they’re getting the last of the robes ready for the handout later.”
While they were talking, the others were looking at me like I was some kind of bug. Like they weren’t sure if they wanted to squash me, poke me with a stick, or let me loose outside.
Like Mr. Black, they could all apparently hear me fine. Mr. Red looked at Mr. Black. “What’s he mean?”
The guy on the black horse stopped fiddling with his gizmo. “He doesn’t know?”
Mr. Black scowled. “It’s the incarnation deal. He forgets every time he goes all fleshy. Be glad I got him here at all.”
What do you need me for? What do you want from me?
They all looked at the man in the dark robes.
“You wanna explain?” said the man in white armor. “Or should I?”
“No, let me. You’d take too long. Listen,” he said to me. "In the beginning someone important said a word, and that word was said with a voice. That voice and that word kicked off the start of things. Later on, the voice sort of became its own deal and flew off, but we need the voice to say another word to start the end of things."
My stomach started to hurt then. Really twist.
"You've got the voice, kid. You've got the word."
“You are the voice,” said the man in the white armor. “Really, I don’t know why you bothered going all fleshy on us."
Mr. Red whipped the sword around and stabbed it into Dark Robe’s chest. Dark Robe looked at the piece of metal sticking out of him and rolled his eyes.
“Ha ha, very funny.”
“That,” said Mr. Black. “That’s what we need. Wars tend to work better if at least one of the sides are capable of death. Once we get that little issue settled, we can start the whole shebang for real.”
And then suddenly everyone was looking at me and I could feel them all looking and it was hard to breathe and I was feeling really hot but my skin was still cold. And it was just like back in the hospital, only worse.
You can't make me.
The man in white snorted and pulled a trumpet out of the bag. A kid in a white tunic-thing came running from one of the armies.
"Hark it, herald," said the man, tossing him the trumpet. "Come on, let's get this show on the road."
The kid ran off, tooting the horn. The armies around us straightened as one, looking kind of like people in a stadium doing the wave.
“Oh yes you are,” said Mr. Black. He slid off his horse. “You can’t leave us hanging. Not again.”
I was terrified. I was panicking, and the words boiling up in my head. My whole mouth was burning. My chest was on fire. And I knew that I was going to have to say something, because I couldn't not say something. But I thought of Jen and Chris and James and Tyler and I couldn't let myself say the word they wanted me to, the one currently burning its way through my head and trying to force its way out between my teeth.
So I said the only thing I could think of. I fought every part of me trying to say the word they wanted, and said instead something that I didn't recognize, but had the strangest feeling that I'd said before.
I spoke the word, and the armies on both sides were tossed back like rag dolls. For a brief second, they hung in the air before the light tore in to them. They went nova. All of them vanished, burned away. The horses, too, exploded into light. None of them had time to scream, though one of the horses got a panicked whinny in.
The last one to go was Mr. Black who seemed to hold himself together by sheer force of will. Even as flakes of his skin begun to fall away, revealing the all-consuming light devouring him inside, had enough presence of mind to try and grab me.
I shoved him away. I caught a glimpse of my own skin cracking and peeling away, the light shining through underneath. And then we both exploded.
* * * * *
I woke in the hospital. St. Claire's, again. I picked myself up from the hall floor and shambled past Chris’s room. He wasn’t in there. Nobody was. The bed was bare, like they were washing the sheets.
I kept on walking right out of the hospital.
I didn't kill them. I know they can't die. Not yet.
That’s what they need me for. What good's a couple of armies and a big ass war if neither side can really win? The word they wanted, the word I've spent my whole life trying not to say, is death. Big death, the beginning and end of ends. Even Mr. Black can only do so much on his own. He can't give the okay to reap angels and that's why they needed me. So they can start playing serious. Black might’ve been Death, but that just meant he was the bullet. The needed the gun.
No, scratch that. They needed someone to pull the trigger.
Mr. Black had made one thing abundantly clear, though. I was hard to find. Until I'd killed something big enough for him to notice (sorry about that, Mr. Leary), until I had killed an actual person, he hadn't been able to find me. It was only after Leary he had shown up.
I hadn’t killed them with my stunt just now, but I’d bought time. Maybe I could buy a little more.
I went into drugstore and came out with enough sleeping pills to take out a bull elephant and a bottle of Jack Daniels. I went to my apartment.
I left a note for Jen, James and Tyler. I didn’t know what to say, other than goodbye and how much I cared about them. Pardon me, as far as I can remember, I’ve never done this before. I may not be up on the etiquette.
I didn’t tell them why, though I told James it had to do with my talking. Maybe he’ll get it, maybe he won’t. Hell if I know.
But I remember it as clear as day.
Heh. She'd tried to kill me. Maybe she knew what I was.
I expect Mr. Black to be dropping by soon, but if this works, I just bought us all another ten, fifteen, twenty years. It depends on how long I can go without killing anyone in the next go around. If it doesn’t work, then I guess we’re all in for a big surprise.